Fathom Mag

It’s time to discuss our dysfunctional family dynamic.

For the Sake of our Queer Siblings

Published on:
June 29, 2021
Read time:
6 min.
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I find families fascinating. Perhaps my fascination started by finding myself somewhat uncomfortably as the focus of other people’s fascination. I grew up in Europe where a family of five is considered large. As the oldest of eight children, I remember the stares. I can still feel the exquisite discomfort of noticing a stranger’s gaze bouncing down the line of us, silently counting. Being analyzed is uncomfortable.

Perhaps this firsthand experience of scrutiny gives me particular empathy for the families I work with professionally. Whether through my natural curiosity or by what felt more like a series of divine comedic accidents, I somehow ended up as a marriage and family therapist. I have a great deal of respect for the families that risk opening up their relational pain to me. It requires bravery.

We can sometimes over-focus on doctrine to the neglect of assessing how we relate with LGBTQ+ people in the body of Christ.

As I have listened to the Christian conversation around sexual ethics over the past decade, particularly as it relates to LGBTQ+ believers, I hear a desire to love people well, remain faithful to the teaching of scripture, and preserve church unity. Often these goals are pursued through discussions of doctrine and scripture. As important as those are, we can sometimes over-focus on doctrine to the neglect of assessing how we relate with LGBTQ+ people in the body of Christ. I am concerned that we will not actually reach our goals this way—that we will analyze LGBTQ+ believers but not interact with them in healthy ways. I am concerned we won’t reach our goals without giving equal attention to our relational dynamics in the family of God.

It’s personal, not just professional.

But first, full disclosure: I come at the topic of LGBTQ+ relations in the church from two angles, one professional, one personal. Since 2006, my husband of seventeen years has been out, sharing his own story to increase understanding for people like himself in the church. It has been an interesting ride, to say the least, listening to my spiritual family discuss all things LGBTQ+ at a seemingly ever-increasing volume. To be honest, it has been painful.

I remember the Wednesday evening service when Nate came out. When he told me his plan, I was nervous because of the vulnerability involved. But I am a firm believer in people being able to share their stories, so my automatic response was, “Well, of course.” I don’t recall much of the actual telling, but I do remember the after. Standing between the pews under the balcony, some well-meaning, white-haired saint approached me and praised me for being such an angel to be married to him. I stood there, paralyzed, not knowing how to respond. Someone was complimenting me. That should feel good, right? But it didn’t feel good. 

What started out as a trickle of discomfort, crept over me leaving me feeling contaminated. At the time I lacked words for what I had encountered, but now I know. It was an assumption of gay people as less than, as morally inferior. Of course it felt awful because it was. It’s a distortion that misrepresents all of us, gay and straight alike. I am not an angel in some kind of one-down relationship with my husband. And a compliment that elevates me at the expense of a person I love is not a compliment. After coming out, the church atmosphere changed for us. With some exceptions, there was the pervasive feeling of being held at arm’s length. There were conversations with certain elders who scrutinized Nate in ways I very much doubt they would have had he been straight. As much as it wanted to be, I don’t think that congregation was ready for his story. There were individuals scattered throughout the community who were capable of relating to him as an equal image-bearer of God, but as a whole, they were not prepared to live with a gay believer among them.

We carried on, Nate increasingly more public with his story, me following alongside in my own parallel world of mental health. In so many ways they felt like separate unrelated worlds. He did his thing, I did mine, and we supported each other as couples do. Until the day they collided in my mind. Owing to our boys being toddlers, I had adopted a schedule of graveyard shift study sessions in preparation for my board examinations. I sat there, surrounded by various and sundry study aids, reviewing terms, models, and theoreticians. I shuffled across the term “double binds” for the umpteenth time, but this time I froze. Oh my goodness, here it was: the word that I needed to describe the cause of my pain as I watched my husband and friends stand up for themselves and communicate with the church at large. Here was an explanation of my hurt. 

Understanding the Hurt

So what are double binds? A double bind is a dysfunctional family dynamic where verbal and non-verbal communication are incoherent and the hearer cannot address the incongruence, or escape the relationship. Imagine, if you will, parents bringing their daughter for therapy. Dad laments that she is withdrawn and refuses to participate in the family. Mom begins to silently cry. Daughter reaches out to touch mom, who reacts by physically stiffening and rejecting the attempt at physical affection. Daughter pulls back. “What?” asks mom through tears, “Don't you love me anymore?” Daughter turns, staring stone-faced at the opposite wall as dad launches into further complaints about her withdrawal. The verbal message communicated by the parents is a request for closeness. The non-verbal message is to push her away. The messages are contradictory, and she is caught in a lose-lose situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

We call people to honesty and then tell them the words they can’t say.

I notice this dynamic among us Christians, particularly in the attempts to regulate the language LGBTQ+ believers use to describe their experience (or believers who experience same-sex attraction, whatever descriptor you prefer). “Come to Jesus, just as you are,” we say. “But don't think of yourself as gay or trans” (Nashville Statement, Article 7). We call people to honesty and then tell them the words they can’t say. “The ground is level at the foot of the cross,” we say. But then we treat people inconsistently at the foot of the cross. If the ground is level, then why selectively micromanage how one particular group of Christians talk about their story? Have you ever heard theologians argue about how Christians can language other aspects of their human experience, such as parenting roles, nationality, disability, or addiction? 

The micromanaging can look like placing all kinds of expectations on people that we cannot actually find in scripture: to not look a certain way or sound a certain way, or use certain adjectives or pronouns. It seems to me that we have developed a posture of scrutiny toward LGBTQ+ individuals that we do not adopt across the board toward other church members.

Other times the double bind presents itself as an insult couched in a demeanor of respect. Nate was once approached by a fellow doctoral candidate at the library for advice. The student was working on research related to ministry to the LGBTQ+ community and had been told by the librarian that Nate was the person to talk to. They stood in the foyer discussing his questions as they waited for the elevator to arrive. But when the doors slid open, he jokingly asked if it was safe for him to step into the elevator with Nate. How do you respond when you’re receiving simultaneous messaging that the arm extended to you contains both a handshake and a dagger?

Here’s what you need to know about the double bind: it’s not necessarily nefarious, it’s just dysfunctional.

Seeing the Hope

Here’s what you need to know about the double bind: it’s not necessarily nefarious, it's just dysfunctional. People communicate in this disorganized way when they are under emotional stress and maladaptively trying to navigate conflict. Let’s go back to my little old church lady at Nate’s coming out. She didn’t approach me mean-spirited or intending to cause harm. She had just been confronted with a narrative that challenged her assumptions, which is typically a stressful experience for anyone. Her non-verbal communication was pleasant and kind, while her verbal communication was anything but. And I froze, not knowing which to respond to: the affirmation or the insult?

There’s an adage in the mental health field that goes like this, “What you pay attention to, you get more of.” It’s a caution against giving over-attention to negative behavior (while overlooking positive behavior) which unfortunately has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the undesirable behavior you are trying to decrease. When families are trying to change, they need feedback not only on their problematic patterns, but also on the ways they are doing well. Of course we talk about the problems, but in my experience families need me to notice their strengths and healthy coping too. It helps generate hope that things can be different, that they are capable of better than the patterns that leave them entrenched in relational gridlock.

In 2018 Nate founded Revoice, an annual conference to provide encouragement to the many LGBTQ+/SSA Christians who, because of their convictions from scripture that sex is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, pursue a life of celibacy or marriage to an opposite-sex spouse. As I’ve reflected since then, one of the most beautiful aspects of the conference for me was the sheer ordinariness of it all. Here was a group of believers, with similar life experiences, gathering together to worship, pray, hear scripture, and fellowship, all to help each other love Jesus more. This happens all the time: in youth groups, women’s retreats, family camps, college ministries, and the list could go on. But here were queer people getting to do it just like the rest of us. 

And here’s the other thing: church people showed up in droves to make it happen. Whether it was giving time, or building space, or talents, or resources, the people of God showed up. Christians of all stripes of denominational and sexual differences came together. There were pastors, and leaders, seminary professors, and students, and a whole host of lay people who came together and made it happen. God’s children just being family to each other, like we’ve been told to do. More than a few people said it felt like a family reunion. And that gave me hope. Hope that we can do better than double binds. Hope that we can figure out how to live equitably together at the foot of the cross.

Sara Collins
Sara Collins is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and has been counseling for the past 14 years. She lives in Saint Louis, MO, with her husband, three sons, two fur babies and a teetering mountain of bedside reading.  You can find more of her work at saracollins.me or follow her at @iamsaracollins.

Cover image by Natalia Y.

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